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The Riccioni Pregnancy
By Daphne Clair
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Daphne Clair
All right reserved.
Chapter OneShe was being followed. Silently, invisibly, but the prickling sensation at her nape and between her shoulder blades gave a primeval warning. Behind her the night hid a hunter.
She had walked down this narrow, sloping street hundreds of times, in daylight and darkness, and never been nervous. Until now.
The street lamps were obscured by trees that lined the narrow verge and cast deep shadows, wayward roots making treacherous humps and cracks underfoot. She should have changed her shoes before leaving work. The heels of her navy courts were high enough to be dangerous in the dark.
She tripped, let out a whispered exclamation, and cast a hurried glance over her shoulder, her heart accelerating.
Nothing. But it would be easy for anyone who didn't want to be seen to dodge behind a tree or one of the parked vehicles along the street. Few of the houses had room for a garage. They'd been built huddled cosily together before the motor car became a way of life.
Instinct quickened her pace, one hand fumbling for a key in the bag that swung from her shoulder.
At her neighbour's gate she paused, casting another glance behind her. Was the moving shadow under one of the trees a trick of the faint night breeze stirring the leaves in the inadequate lighting, or ...?
Briefly she pictured herself pounding on the door, pleading for entry, saw the cheerful, phlegmatic Tongan family taking her in, sending out their muscular menfolk to deal with the lurking stranger. But no lights showed, no sound of the teenagers' music videos or the adults' rich, rapid voices floated into the street.
And what if she was mistaken? Fleeing some phantom attacker who didn't exist?
Her own gate was only yards away, and the safety of her home, the two-storey cottage that recalled New Zealand's colonial past.
Don't run. A few quick strides, a practised fumble with the latch and then she was on the short brick pathway, the gate clanging shut behind her, the drooping leaves of the kowhai brushing the shoulders of her suit as her fingers closed at last on the key in her bag.
She was on the second of the three worn wooden steps to the tiny porch when the gate clanged again, and she whirled, backing up the last step as a tall male figure materialised, closing on her.
One high heel caught in a gap between the worn boards, and she lost her balance, flinging out a hand to steady herself and losing her grip on the key.
She grabbed at a painted post, heard the key clatter to the brick path, saw the dark bulk of the man's wide shoulders as he stooped and picked it up.
There was no way she could get past him. She was trapped with a locked door behind her. And before her, a man with her key in his hand, already straightening.
She lifted her head, opened her mouth, drawing breath into her lungs ready to scream and hope someone would hear - someone who would help.
He took the steps in one stride, and a large, warm hand clamped over her mouth, strangling the sound at birth.
Smartly, viciously, she lifted her knee, but he was already behind her. She tried to bite, her teeth finding no purchase against the broad, suffocating palm. She kicked backward with a lethal heel but he was obviously prepared for the ploy and she found only empty air. Her elbow, aimed for his solar plexus, was caught in a hard hand that slid to her wrist, then his arm went around her, bringing her against an equally hard masculine body.
Then his breath was in her ear, his voice low, harsh. "Darling, don't."
Darling? Her whole body went rigid within the iron circle of his arm across her midriff.
Darling? Fury replaced fear.
Her temples throbbed as if her heart were sending all her blood there, and her limbs went hot and boneless. His imprisoning embrace slackened a fraction, and she used the moment to twist away and face him, her right hand swinging up with all her weight behind it, delivering a slap that resounded in the quiet street like a gunshot, the force of it almost rocking him off his feet.
"Bastard!" Her voice was shrill and wavering and she wished she'd kept her mouth shut. Now he knew she was panicked, a hysterical woman shrieking futile insults because she'd been frightened out of her mind by a man looming from the night.
His face was invisible in the darkness but she saw him lift a hand, and in a blind, useless attempt at avoidance she retreated the few inches that were left to her before her back collided with the locked door.
And then he laughed.
She heaved air into her lungs. Her head was buzzing and she seemed to be floating somewhere in space - dark, disorienting space. She had to take another breath before she could speak. Gritting her teeth, making her voice hard and steady, she said, "Give me my key."
He held it out to her, waiting for her to take it.
She snatched at it, but for a fraught moment he didn't release it, and her fingers were touching his.
Adrenalin raced from her fingertips and through her body, making it weightless, every nerve humming with electricity. Then he relinquished the key and she whirled and tried to fit it into the lock, unable to find the tiny slot because she was shaking so badly.
Strong male fingers closed over hers, and she jumped, then he was taking the key, efficiently inserting it, turning it, his hand on her back as he opened the door and thrust her ahead of him.
Now they were both inside and he'd shut them into a deeper darkness, together. Her eyes useless, her other senses at screaming pitch, she could hear the faint sound of his strangely uneven breathing, smell clean cotton and wool, soap and a hint of something woodsy - and underneath it the long-unfamiliar, earthy and shockingly seductive scent of male arousal.
His hand was still at her waist, and his arm came further about her, pulling her to him. "You're trembling," he said. Her temple was grazed by the subtle rasp of a shaven chin. "I'm sorry."
"So you bloody should be!" Anger was a defence against shame and confusion. She wrenched away from him, reached blindly for the light switch and blinked in the sudden cruel glare at watchful burnt-sienna eyes, black brows drawn together in a frown above a masterful nose, and a mouth fixed in a taut line that failed to hide its sensuous masculinity.
His eyelids lowered as he studied her face in return. "You're pale," he told her.
She felt pale. "Have you been stalking me?" she demanded.
The upward jerk of his head dislodged a strand from the severely combed sleekness of salon-styled night-black hair. "Stalking?"
"You were following me. Don't tell me you weren't trying to hide."
"I was trying not to frighten you."
She almost laughed. "You what?"
"I thought if you saw - or heard - a man behind you in this lonely street you'd have reason to feel afraid."
Excerpted from The Riccioni Pregnancy by Daphne Clair Copyright © 2003 by Daphne Clair
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.